December 3rd, 1967 proved to be a monumental day in the history of medicine and an important day in the history of mankind. In Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town, South Africa, the first heart transplant was successfully carried out. The procedure was carried out by Christian Barnard and his team. Louis Washkansky was the recipient of a human heart donated by Denise Darvall, a 25-year-old victim of a motor vehicle accident. This procedure was unprecedented and progressive. It allowed surgeons who came after Dr. Barnard to experiment and try new methods in the same field. A similarity is shared between this procedure to one that was carried out more recently.
In what is a groundbreaking moment, 57-year-old David Bennet received the heart of a genetically modified pig. Bennet was suffering from arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat, and was connected to a machine keeping him alive. He had been bedridden for a period of six weeks before the surgery. He was deemed as ineligible to receive a human heart, a decision that was based on the health of the patient. Bennet’s only choice was to transplant a pig’s heart. “It was either die or do this transplant,” Bennet said the day before what is a highly experimental surgery.
The surgery was a 7-hour long procedure that was carried out by a team led by Bartley Griffith. The procedure was carried out at the University of Maryland Medical Center on Friday, January 7th. The doctors were given special permission by US medical regulators on the basis that it was an emergency procedure. The heart of the pig was taken out of the animal and reserved in a special container on the same day as the surgery. This procedure finally became a possibility after years of research. Under normal circumstances, the heart would have been rejected by the human body but in this instance, certain genes were removed from it and others added to make it possible for the human body to accept it. While this is the most major procedure carried out using a pig’s organs, it is not a new concept seeing the use of pig organs. A similar procedure was carried out last year at NYU Langone Health, only that in this instance a kidney was transplanted but it was done on the body of a person who was braindead with no chances of survival but still on life support. The procedure was a success because the kidney functioned. Pig skin and porcine heart valves are also used on humans. This is because pigs share some biological similarities with people.
Doctors are proceeding with caution as they wait to see how Bennet reacts to having the heart in his body over a longer period of time. He has had the heart for three days and doctors are happy with his progress. “We’ve never done this in a human and I like to think that we have given him a better option than what continuing his therapy would have been,” Mr. Griffith said. “But whether [he will live for] a day, week, month, year, I don’t know.” A large number of people will be optimistic the surgery is a long-term success. More than 100,000 people are on the organ donor waiting list while at the same time, 17 people die every day due to a shortage of organs. Success with these genetically modified organs would be a much welcome reprieve.